The Current

'They lose everything': Black athletes who protest pay same price today as 50 years ago, says author

Ahead of the 2020 Superbowl, ESPN's Howard Bryant talks about his new book, Full Dissidence, and why he believes black athletes who protest injustice face the same high stakes as they did half a century ago.

ESPN's Howard Bryant sees little progress since John Carlos and Tommie Smith's 1968 protest

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, pictured here on Dec. 11, 2016, alleges he was blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black people. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

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Howard Bryant is dismayed that the stakes for black athletes speaking out against racial injustice today, like former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, remain as high today as they did half a century ago.

"In 1968, you wouldn't have thought that 50 years later there would be stakes," Bryant, a senior writer at ESPN, told The Current's host Matt Galloway. 

During the medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists, in a symbol of the Black Power movement.

It became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Tommie Smith, middle, and John Carlos, right, raise their gloved fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico to express their opposition to racism in the United States. (Getty Images/File)

The two athletes paid a heavy price for that act of civil rights protest. They were suspended from the U.S. Olympics team, received death threats and struggled to make a living for years. 

Ahead of the 2020 Super Bowl, Bryant spoke to Galloway about his new collection of essays, Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field, which explores the ongoing tension between race and politics in American sports.

Here's part of their conversation.

This book begins with the line: "To be black is to be a dissident." What do you mean by that?

When you think about a Tommie Smith or John Carlos, when you think about a Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick … they don't just lose their careers. 

They lose everything, or they risk losing everything. And that's the reason why you have so many athletes who are reluctant to even talk about these issues.

How have those stakes changed since '68? 

I think the stakes have changed in that, in 1968, you wouldn't have thought that 50 years later there would be stakes. I thought that the country was supposedly moving toward some form of equality and that … that gesture was not going to still be, I guess, relevant is the right word. 

Howard Bryant is a senior writer at (Kyle D. Johnson)

And I think what we're seeing 50 years later, especially coming after the 2016 election, is that that's not the case.

I feel a much more hostile environment where: "If you don't like it, leave."

This feeling that you can have your citizenship revoked is very, very different from the aspiration that we used to hear when I was younger.

You mentioned Colin Kaepernick. And for so many people, what he did, it is still the defining political moment in sports of our time: deciding to kneel during the American national anthem in protest of police brutality against black Americans.

How would you characterize the reaction to his protest?

It wasn't just that you disagreed with what he did. It was the fact that even when Nike, a billion-dollar corporation, decided to support him, people were trying to boycott Nike. And that was one of the things that really, really, really struck me.

[For] anybody who tries to support him in any way, there was going to be some massive protest by a certain section of the country. 

And that hit me, that they were trying to destroy this man. And that runs completely counter to what I felt our belief systems were.

It’s been two years since the former NFL quarterback first began his protest of racial injustices in the United States, and Rob Pizzo takes you through his controversial path. 3:20

This isn't a book entirely about Colin Kaepernick, but his narrative runs right through it.

He can't get a game in the league. And there are people who say that he's yesterday's man: the league has moved past him; he's not that good anymore. 

I don't think that's the point at all about whether he's good or not. The point is, is that what we do to people? 

And if the answer is yes, then we've got a big problem. 

Where do you see progress in how pro sports teams deal with race?

I don't think that I do. 

I actually think that things are going a little bit backwards in terms of the aggressiveness toward black athletes, because I think that sports is the one place where we overestimate the power of money and where we feel that we can attack players because they're rich. 

And it's actually interesting to me that that athletes are the only people in … our culture, where you want to hear less from them because they make money. 

Kim Kardashian — what are we listening to her for? Because she's rich. Why are we listening to Donald Trump? Because he's rich. Why are we listening to Michael Bloomberg or Mark Cuban? Because they're rich.

And that [difference] is completely due to race and class.

Muhammad Ali, pictured here on May 10, 1967, was stripped of his heavyweight title after declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. (Charles Harrity, File/Associated Press)

We started out in talking about Tommie Smith and John Carlos and what they did in 1968. Fifty years later, you can look at that and you can see them as icons. 

Someone like Colin Kaepernick in this moment is being exiled from the league that he wants to play in. But will he be seen differently, perhaps, by that league in years to come? 

Time does this for everybody. But what's happening in real time? What happened to Tommie Smith and John Carlos in real time? John Carlos was a bus boy. He was a security guard. He lost everything. And so he lost his entire livelihood to be celebrated 50 years later. 

Who would accept that deal? And what does that say about us? 

What would you say, then, to young black athletes today who might be on the cusp of that sort of fame and fortune?

I'd say it's your turn. I'd say you get to decide what world you want. 

Even if there are real consequences for you speaking out?

If you're African-American, everything you do comes with a consequence. I think that the most important thing you can do is recognize the consequences, and look in the mirror, and like what you see.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ben Jamieson.